Chile Wars

Is that green chile on your plate from Hatch? And how much does it matter?

As rotating-drum roasters, chain-link enclosures, propane tanks and boxes and burlap bags of green chile began to appear at grocery stores and local markets in August, anticipation for the chile-roasting season in Santa Fe reaches a fever pitch.

I check the green chile freezer shelves in the garage and am confident that I can forgo the procurement of more roasted Capiscum annum because those shelves look pretty damn full. On that same day and during the following week, however, a steady stream of houseguests and former Santa Feans conveniently arrive from out of town—just in time to deplete my frozen chile hoard and send me searching for more. Let's face it. Winter without green chile in Santa Fe is like a summer without sunscreen in Santa Fe: Both can potentially lead to an early death.

But do the chile addicts among us know where their bounty is actually grown? Why is there such a disparity between the prices offered for roasted New Mexico chile in chain groceries and prices offered for roasted chile found at makeshift operations overseen by independent farmer-roasters? And what makes their places of origin so special?

The answers are as complex as describing the aroma and flavor of fresh-roasted green chiles to someone who thinks "chile" is a bowl of ground meat and beans served in a tame, cumin-riddled bowl of Middle-American mediocrity. There is a passion for green chile in Santa Fe and greater New Mexico that flows seamlessly from producer to roaster to consumer.

Thanks to the growing national popularity of Hatch's seasonal peppers, however, there is also a culture of mistrust among people who understand that food labels are a lot like politicians: Sometimes, they lie.

Hatch-ing a plan

The venerable green chile that hails from the village of Hatch (the self-proclaimed "Chile Capital of the World"), located in Doña Ana County about 40 miles northwest of Las Cruces, currently suffers from a frustrating identity crisis. It's one that many true Hatch growers attribute to an indelicate balance of centuries of hard work on very specific soil and environmental makeups of the region; decades of deserved hype in local, national and international press; and major produce distributors who hope to cash in on the enduring and highly profitable Hatch chile mystique. But one of these things (the last one, ¿que no?) is not like the other.

On the first outing for chiles and answers, I meet up with the Duran family of Taos-based Los Chile Bros., which has been roasting true Hatch-grown chile in the Big Lots parking lot the past 27 years. Chris Duran, his wife Lupita and their 4-year-old son Chris Jr. run the daily roasting routine, while the family's elder patriarch, Johnny Duran, oversees a few dozen acres of chile in the village of Hatch.

In comparison to prices for roasted green chile advertised in major grocery stores, the prices at Los Chile Bros. may seem steep. A 35-pound bag of roasted goodies will set you back $35, while a 25-pound bag of Hatch chile at Albertsons, Lowe's Marketplace, or Smith's will deplete your wallet of a mere $15-$19—roasting included. Step it up to the chain "natural" grocers, and expect to pay $5-$15 more. The difference may seem minimal after doing the math and succumbing to your chile addiction, but the Durans think something else is afoot.

"Go into any of the major grocery stores selling 'Hatch' green chile in Santa Fe, and ask them what variety of chile they're roasting," Chris Sr. asks. "My bet is that they can't tell you what variety of chile they're selling. Is it a Joe Parker? A Sandia? A Big Jim? A Diablo? A New Mex XX?"

Duran is referring a multitude of chile peppers that have been developed by New Mexico State University agricultural researchers, students and individual growers since the late 1800s. For these, you can thank an incredible advance in Southwest-climate agriculture sparked by the work of Fabian Garcia, who created the crossbred chile strain "New Mexico No. 9," a plant that, starting in 1921, opened the door to a blossoming chile industry in the state.

What’s In a Name?

On the Durans' acreage in the village of Hatch, Joe Parker (mild), Sandia (medium-to-hot), Diablo (hot to fucking hot) and other chile strains depend on continuously depleted irrigation from the Río Grande and a shrinking reserve of local groundwater.

These days, each harvest is a gamble, as interstate water–rights litigation with El Paso, Texas, and climate variances in the region bear down on an increasingly thirsty industry. For the Durans, a true, state-regulated geographic designation for green chile grown in Hatch might make a difference.

On the opposite side of the state, in the community of Chimayó, which straddles Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties, growers know a thing or two about the fight to protect their product's place name.

Three private entities attempted—and failed—to secure either a Chimayó certification or trademark, including New Mexico-chile juggernaut Bueno Foods (El Encanto Inc.).

So in 2006, Chimayó chile farmers took matters into their own hands and applied for a trademark of the Chimayó name through the United States Patent and Trademark Office. That trademark still stands as registered, yet they also sought support from the state.

A year later, during the 2007 New Mexico State Legislature, Rep. Nick L Salazar, D-Ohkay Owingeh, introduced the rather toothless House Joint Memorial 38, asking the state Department of Agriculture to seek its own trademark on Chimayó chile as an heirloom New Mexico crop: "Whereas, the chile that is known as Chimayó chile, Chimayó red, Chimayó green and Chimayó Christmas chile is a specific land race [a local cultivar that has been improved by traditional agricultural methods] particularly adapted to and cultivated in the geographical area of Chimayó."

Perhaps the fact that the symbolic measure died that year before a final vote illustrates that the difficulty with trademarks for regional food crops comes in oversight. For specialty products hailing from a small growing region (chile powder, dried chile peppers and dried crushed chile peppers, processed chile peppers and fresh unprocessed ones), ensuring that impostors don't crop up is a near-impossible task.

The same is true for Hatch-grown chile. The Hatch Chile Co. of Brunswick, Ga., applied for and received a trademark for use of the word "Hatch" in March 2008. True Hatch growers are concerned that the trademark owner is buying up chiles from Mexico and other chile-growing areas in the US, and passing them off as Hatch-grown. Oppositions have been filed against the existing trademark as recently as 2013, but activity on the fight has stalled.

The state did start taking steps to protect the entirety of New Mexico chile beginning with the April 2011 passing of the New Mexico Chile Advertising Act, which requires chile and chile-product vendors to fill out a one-page verification form describing in detail the chile's place of origin within the state. "The act states that it is unlawful for a person to knowingly advertise, describe, label, or offer for sale a product as containing New Mexico chile, unless the chile peppers or chile peppers in the product were grown in New Mexico," according to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture website.

On Aug. 19, the nonprofit grower/producer-run New Mexico Chile Association launched a renewed effort to help the state combat impostor producers and companies taking advantage of cheap foreign labor and loose regulations. As the chile crop acreage in New Mexico continues to hover around 9,000 acres (for comparison, in 1992, 34,500 acres of chile were harvested in the state), the association hopes to protect what is left. With shrinking labor forces, lingering drought and stiff competition from China, it's certainly an uphill battle to keep New Mexico chile on the map.

Mommy, where do chiles come from?

According to the nonprofit organization Archaeology Southwest, chile peppers were one of the most vital foodstuffs among pre-contact (before European contact) Mesoamerican societies spanning from central Mexico to Central and South America. Many food historians and anthropologists attribute the introduction of chile to what is now called New Mexico to conquistador Don Juan de Oñate, who, in 1598, first set foot here with a number of seeds gathered during his travels.

DNA research conducted by the NMSU Chile Breeding Program concluded that many traditional Northern New Mexico land race chiles contained a distinct genetic similarity to land race varieties from Mexico. It isn’t known how many chile peppers hauled back to Spain by Christopher Columbus after his Caribbean travels made it back to Mexico and New Mexico with Oñate, and archaeological evidence exists that varieties of chile existed in the Southwest-US region before Oñate’s arrival here. According to Archaeology Southwest, “The chiltepín, a wild relative of the cultivated chile, did grow in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Northern Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, and the region’s inhabitants presumably used the plant.”

While the advent of the popularity of modern New Mexico chile is inextricably tied to colonization, its survival as a vital crop in the state should be attributed to Native American populations that adopted it into their own agricultural and culinary canons. For close to 300 years after its introduction to New Mexico, chile remained little more than a novelty. Today, people hoard it like gold.

If you’re making chiles rellenos the same day you visit a local roaster, peel them right away, Durham advises. Otherwise, leave the skins on when freezing.Frankenchile?

A major concern among traditional New Mexico chile growers and sustainability-conscious consumers is the advent of genetic modification. Growers and ag specialists in the state have been working since 1888 to develop more drought- and disease-resistant strains of chile to help preserve and improve the crop's success in New Mexico.

In a January article by Lindsey Anderson published in the Carlsbad Current-Argus, NMSU Chile Pepper Institute agricultural research scientist Danise Coon is quoted as saying, "None of the chiles that come out of NMSU are GMO, and they will never be."

While uniform selection and cross-breeding with other chiles (known as "genetic enhancement," versus "genetic modification," which requires inserting the DNA of foreign species into a plant) may be the current modus operandi for the development of new, hardier chile strains in the state, it's important to keep in mind the 2013 ill-fated NM Senate Bill 18, which would have required labeling of genetically engineered foods in New Mexico.

Identifying and reintroducing the finest traits in chile varietals that help the plants protect themselves against drought and chile pepper wilt (an invasive water fungus) doesn't require the insertion of other-species genetic material. But it's too early to tell if enhancement, and not something more, will be enough to protect what is left of the $350-million-dollar-a-year New Mexico industry.

Without stiff public scrutiny and grower/consumer vigilance, GMO chile in New Mexico's traditional planting fields feels almost inevitable, unless a miracle enhancement arrives soon. In the meantime, save your heritage pepper seeds if you have them. In a few decades, true New Mexico chile growers may need them.

You can’t handle the truth, but you should ask for it

I take the Duran clan up on their dare to visit local chain groceries and ask them what kind of Hatch-based chile they were roasting. The results were unanimous: The chile may be grown in or around Hatch—but who knows?

At a couple of Smith's groceries (two stores, the one on Cerrillos Road and the one at Pacheco off St. Michael's Drive), where a 25-pound bag of roasted "Hatch" chile clocked in at $15.99 for 25 pounds, I ask what strain of chile they were roasting. The answer? "Hatch." Upon further investigation, asking again what kind of Hatch-grown chile was available, the answer was a unanimous, "It says it on the box."

No, it doesn't. Not a single nod to the beloved Sandia chile, no mention of Big Jim or anything else to advance a chile varietal that has been passed down through generations of farmers and roasters in Doña Ana County.

The produce managers tell me the name of their providers, folks like Hatch-based Young Guns Produce, which, despite its ubiquity in the Smith's/Kroger universe, advertises its product as Hatch. The company has an 80-plus-year record of growing chile in Hatch and selling to major retailers. In some instances, however, boxes of chile at major grocery chains are marked with a statement that the chile was grown in "either Luna or Doña Ana County." The village of Hatch is located in the latter. Buyer beware.

The best way to guarantee that your chile is from Hatch is to either find a trusted, small-scale grower/roaster in town (word of mouth works wonders in Santa Fe), or go down to Hatch and pick up the goods from a local farmer. And what better time for a road trip than August 30-31, when the village hosts its annual Hatch Chile Festival?

Besides the parade, chile and salsa cook-offs and (yes!) a beer garden, festivalgoers can take in an art market, a carnival, live music, folklórico dances and, of course, plenty of the roasted green stuff for sale.

To peel or not to peel?

The long-standing debate continues.

After roasting the chiles, executive chef and co-founder of the Santa Fe Culinary Academy, Rocky Durham, introduces me to his method of freezer-storing them. “Keep the skins on to retain more roasted flavor,” he says, “but if you want to remove the skins, don’t run the chiles under water while peeling. Not only are you losing flavor, but you’re making more work for yourself.”

Durham unrolls a sheet of plastic wrap on one of his worktables and places a roasted Alcalde Improved at one end. He folds the plastic over the chile, rolls it once, and then repeats the process with about 12 chiles before placing them in a freezer bag. “This way, you’re not defrosting and refreezing a whole bag of chiles to get a few pieces for sauce or a few whole chiles for rellenos. Simply unroll one end of the plastic wrap, remove the number of chiles you want, and replace the rest back in the freezer.” Genius.

A matter of taste

To get a better understanding of roasted chile's sensual hold on practically everyone who comes into contact with it, I reach out to Durham, my oldest friend and brother in gastronomic arms. His insights gave me hope that—despite the red tape surrounding the production, marketing and sale of specific New Mexico green chile types—flavor and truth in advertising still matter.

"I understand the need to preserve the heritage seed stocks and protect the names of Hatch-grown chiles and other New Mexico varieties," Durham says. "The origins of the habanero, the jalapeño, and the poblano can also be tied to place names—Havana, Cuba, Xalapa and Puebla, Mexico, respectively. Today, their production is pretty ubiquitous, and there isn't as much emphasis placed on finding the real deal. In New Mexico, though, we're talking about heirloom produce that people here take very seriously. It's part of our cultural fabric."

As an example, Durham mentions the Alcalde Improved green chile, a variety developed by Matt Romero of Romero Farms, located in Dixon and Alcalde. Romero, who roasts the chile during the season at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, adopted Española Improved seed from his uncle, Arthur Martinez, and has been making his own betterments to the plant.

"The Northern New Mexico–grown Alcalde Improved chile is a perfect example of great green chile that doesn't come from Hatch," Durham says. "It's incredibly flavorful and meaty, and the size of the pepper at the beginning of the season rivals that of most heritage chiles grown in southern New Mexico."

Durham invites me to come by the academy for an impromptu morning-roast session of Alcalde Improved, and to teach me a great storage trick for freshly roasted green chiles. Who says no to that? I drop by the Tuesday Santa Fe Farmers Market at the Railyard and pick up a five-pound batch ($20) of raw Alcalde Improved. "You're not going to believe how easily these things peel," Romero says while I wait for my chiles to be bagged. "Good luck keeping those around the house for long." He was right.

Durham and I rendezvous on the academy balcony, and before roasting commences, he waxes philosophical about the manner in which many people approach New Mexico chile.

"A lot of people are heat seekers when they hunt for roasted chile, and to me there isn't much logic in that. Do you go out looking for a wine based solely on its alcohol content? No. You find a wine you like, and if you're invested in the purchase, you usually find foods to pair with it," he explains. "The same should be true with chile. Red or white wine, red or green chile, it's too…basic. When you look for nuance in each roast, sauce or variety, and you do it with an eye toward authentic New Mexico growers, you're doing regions like Hatch and Chimayó a favor. Do your homework, and you'll never be disappointed."

Ask a Mexican about chile, expect a glorious mouthful

In November 2013 during the first FUZE.SW Food and Folklore Festival, a panel titled “The Big Debate: Local Ingredients, Foreign Chefs and the Question of Culinary Cannibalism,” featured many great culinary minds, including Gustavo Arellano, editor of the OC Weekly, the brain trust behind the popular nationally syndicated column, “¡Ask a Mexican!” and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.

Arellano is never short on well-informed opinions regarding the origins of foodstuffs that native New Mexicans and chile-loving gabachos hold dear. On the origins of New Mexico chile and its relation to Mexican cuisine and culture, Arellano makes no bones.

“I think it’s indisputable that genuine New Mexican food finds its roots in relocation and migration,” he says. “Over the past few years here in California, the Hatch chile craze has been building up to a crescendo. Every year, El Rey Farms holds a massive Hatch chile roast at La Puente High School [in La Puente, about 20 miles from Los Angeles]. The farther many consumers get from the source, the less likely they are to investigate the origins of the product. But when it comes down to flavor and sense memory, rest assured that transplanted New Mexicans are on guard. They know their Hatch, and they want it to be genuine.”

In Southern California, as in most of the country, the Hatch name holds weight with consumers, including chefs in boutique, high-end restaurants who budget for the seasonal arrival of Hatch chiles.

“With any grower, results are going to vary from year-to-year,” Arellano points out. “But devoted chile consumers have a sense of nostalgia for the original product. You can try to replicate a chile plant from New Mexico outside of New Mexico, but there’s this thing called terroir that many people care about and learn instinctively. Example: If I taste jalapeños outside of Xalapa, Mexico, I’m going to know the difference when I taste one grown in California.

“Most of the jalapeños on the market today have no flavor! They’re all heat. Supporting local chile farmers is the only way to ensure the future of landrace chile varieties,” he continues. “Small-production farms growing chile in New Mexico need to ramp up their marketing, or risk being overshadowed even more by the big guys.” 

You can catch Arellano and a slew of other New Mexico-food enthusiasts (including yours truly) at this year’s FUZE.SW fest, Sept. 12-14, on Museum Hill.

Images by Anson Stevens-Bollen, Rob DeWalt and Enrique Limón.
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